Microbial and viral indicators of pathogens and human health risks from recreational exposure to waters impaired by fecal contamination

Journal of Sustainable Water in the Built Environment
By:  and 



Fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) (e.g., fecal coliforms, Escherichia coli, and enterococci) have been used for decades to monitor for and protect the public from waterborne pathogens from fecal contamination. However, FIB may not perform well at predicting the presence of waterborne pathogens or human health outcomes from recreational exposure to fecal-contaminated surface waters. Numerous factors can influence the relationship between FIB and pathogens or human health outcomes, including the source(s) of contamination, the type of pathogen(s) present, differences in the survival and behavior of FIB and pathogens in the wastewater conveyance and treatment process, and varying environmental conditions. As a result, different indicators, such as source-specific microbial source tracking (MST) markers and viral fecal indicators, have been used as possible surrogates to better approximate pathogen abundance and human health risks in recreational waters. The performance of these alternative indicators has been mixed, with some promise of viral indicators better approximating viral pathogens than bacterial fecal indicators, and FIB generally more closely associated with bacterial and protozoal pathogen presence than human MST markers. Many of the assays to detect and quantify fecal indicators and pathogens are polymerase chain reaction-based assays, which detect and quantify nucleic acid [deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA)] sequences specific to a target of interest. Recent advances in DNA and RNA sequencing technologies may push the field toward metabarcoding approaches, where multiple targets can be detected and quantified simultaneously. Metabarcoding is currently more applicable to bacterial and protozoal assessments than viral assessments based on a lack of universal metabarcoding markers for viruses. Innovative technologies, such as biosensors and nanotechnologies, may provide more sensitive and accurate tools to detect and quantify pathogens. When a specific pathogen is of concern for a recreational water body, a practical approach in estimating the likelihood of human health outcomes is the application of quantitative microbial risk assessments (QMRAs). Quantitative microbial risk assessments can be used to model the likelihood of pathogen-specific human health outcomes from recreational exposure as a function of a surrogate indicator. Inputs for QMRAs include the ratio between the indicator to be monitored and the pathogen of interest, the concentration of the indicator, the amount of water ingested, and the likelihood of the health outcome based on the estimated amount of pathogen consumed. There are numerous unknowns about the behavior and survival of fecal indicators and pathogens in environmental waters. Developing accurate models to predict pathogen concentrations from fecal indicators in recreational waters will require a better understanding of these unknowns. Current methods and technologies for detecting and quantifying fecal indicators and pathogens are limited due to the rare and patchy nature of pathogens. Technological advances may help improve sensitivity for detecting and quantifying pathogens.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Microbial and viral indicators of pathogens and human health risks from recreational exposure to waters impaired by fecal contamination
Series title Journal of Sustainable Water in the Built Environment
DOI 10.1061/JSWBAY.0000936
Volume 7
Issue 2
Year Published 2021
Language English
Publisher ASCE
Contributing office(s) South Atlantic Water Science Center
Description 03121001, 15 p.
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